Aaron Gordon got the responsibility of guarding James Harden on Friday night. He not only stymied the MVP candidate, he shined on both ends for the Magic.
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The signs have been there in little bits throughout the season.
In all the arguments and debates over what is Aaron Gordon’s true position or what the Orlando Magic are doing for him, Gordon has simply done his work. He has had his hiccups for sure. The 21-year-old forward is far from a finished product.
But the signs were there. On both ends increasingly, the signs are there Gordon is not only this team’s future, but quickly becoming this team’s present too.
With the Houston Rockets in town and the challenge of guarding that monstrous offense, the Magic were going to turn to Gordon to cut the head off the snake. Coach Frank Vogel said before the game Gordon was the player he trusted with these primary defensive assignments.
It is not something Gordon takes lightly.
And that might be the most impressive thing from the 21-year-old Gordon. He does not care for the spotlight that comes from having these marquee assignments — the Magic literally matched him minute for minute on Jame Harden — he views it as a responsibility.
Just handing him that responsibility shows tremendous trust and growth for the third-year player.
“It just means I need to bring it every night,” Gordon said. “That comes with responsibility. With that responsibility, I need to bring my energy, I need to bring my defense or I am doing a disservice to myself and a disservice to my team. I appreciate Frank for doing that and the coaching staff. It just means I need to bring it.”
It is a responsibility he is increasingly stepping up to complete.
Gordon, playing primarily on Harden, helped hold Harden to just 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting. He missed all eight of his 3-pointers too. Harden did dish out 10 assists and record seven rebounds. But the Magic largely kept him in check.
That kept the game close and gave Orlando every chance to win the game.
Orlando largely controlled the Rockets’ free-wheeling offense, holding them to 100 points and a 105.0 offensive rating, well below their season average. It obviously was not enough to win in a 100-93 loss at the Amway Center on Friday, but there is some solace in that the Magic had a defensive game plan and largely stuck to it — outside a stretch in the second quarter and third quarter where Ryan Anderson went bonkers from beyond the arc.
Gordon said his main responsibility was to “keep his hand out of the cookie jar” and not reach in on Harden. It helped keep Harden off the foul line. Except for some very rare instances, Harden could not get his usual foul calls as he had just six free throw attempts.
And using his athleticism and defensive acumen, Gordon kept Harden largely on the perimeter and in front of him, challenging his shots well. Nothing Harden did was easy.
The Magic built that strategy around Gordon’s ability to slow Harden, arguably the league’s MVP to this point. The team knows this is the kind of player he can grow into.
“He’s been put in a lot of tough spots this year in terms of these guys he has to come in and guard,” Vogel said. “For the most part, he has been at least solid and a lot of times really good.”
Gordon’s strong play was not just about his defensive prowess. Gordon has quickly become a much more reliable and confident offensive player, both a product of growing comfort in his new role and his returning to form after an early season ankle injury.
Gordon has quickly become a much more reliable and confident offensive player. This is both a product of growing comfort in his new role and his returning to form after an early season ankle injury.
Gordon scored 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting, making two of his six 3-pointers. He also dished out a career-high seven assists and grabbed six rebounds. These are the kind of mixed and versatile stat lines everyone could only dream of with Gordon.
In his last 10 games, Gordon is averaging 13.4 points per game, making 46.3 percent from the floor and 34.9 percent from beyond the arc. He has added 4.9 rebounds per game to boot from the small forward position.
This is all part of a growing trend toward consistency for Gordon.
“He was able to listen to my message to attack, but don’t force,” Vogel said. “Everything with Aaron is about playing within himself, especially off the bounce. He did a good job not over penetrating. One or two bounces to find a seam to find a teammate and he did a great job of that.”
Things are not going to happen overnight for Gordon, Vogel said. But he said he is pleased with the progress he has made as the season has hit its midpoint. It seems Gordon is starting to find his comfort zone and hit his stride. Gordon said it certainly helps that he finally feels fully recovered from the ankle injury that knocked him out of training camp this year.
It seems Gordon is starting to find his comfort zone and hit his stride. Gordon said it certainly helps that he finally feels fully recovered from the ankle injury that knocked him out of training camp this year.
But there is still that sting of defeat. All these individual accolades and hope for the future are meaningless. Not for a player trying ot make the most of his moment and the Playoff hopes for this franchise.
Sitting in his locker after the game Friday, it was clear it is still not enough. Gordon stared at the box score trying to sort through what was left for him to do.
As he begins to soar more individually, the Magic cannot seem to put everything together. And that is what matters more.
“It’s good individually, but as a team we need to pick it up,” Gordon said. “Everybody knows that. It isn’t a secret and we are going to do that.”
Vogel said after Monday’s win over the New York Knicks, no player may take losses harder than Gordon. Vogel said Gordon is typically the team’s constant in terms of energy.
That will carry Gordon far in the end.
Even in defeat, games like Friday night serve as reminders of how much talent he really has and just what the future might hold in store. Gordon can defend the best player on the opposing team and score efficiently within an offense.
As his skills expand, he could still possibly do more. It will just take some patience.
“I think I’m just a little more dynamic,” Gordon said. “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t able to be all that dynamic. Now I can make moves I wasn’t able to make. My teammates are doing a good job catching the ball and they are doing a good job finishing. I continue to make plays for my team.”